One of the great things about the guitar is that it can be a very dynamic and expressive instrument. A great example of this is when playing an acoustic guitar. Sure, it can sound great when doing some Pete Townsend-style mega strumming (does the intro to ‘Pinball Wizard’ ring a bell with anyone?), …but it certainly doesn’t have to be that bombastic, right?
Approaching the instrument with different playing styles can make all the difference in the world and enhance your overall skillsets to get as much out of playing as your creative spirit desires. While strumming chords is undoubtedly an important skill to master (and it’s typically the way that most beginners start things off), learning how to play fingerstyle guitar can open up a whole new landscape as to what the instrument can do.
Let’s take a good overall look at playing fingerstyle: some classic examples, what sets it apart from strumming chords, and some tips and exercises to get yourself off the ground.
Classic songs that have used fingerstyle guitar
In the right context, fingerstyle guitar can create an entirely different sonic landscape from songs composed mostly of strummed chords. If you think about it, some of the most beautiful and delicate songs ever written have been played using the fingerstyle approach on the guitar.
Countless examples are proof positive of that, from a large part of Paul Simon’s work (particularly with Simon and Garfunkel) all the way to the Beatles (‘Blackbird’), Kansas (‘Dust In The Wind’), Fleetwood Mac (‘Landslide’) and – dare we say it – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (yeah yeah…we know all about the ‘No Stairway’ rule…but you can’t deny that it is an awe-inspiring song that had made a significant impact on guitar players far and wide).
What comes to your mind by mentioning just these relatively few examples? It means songs that have a lightness to them, using a melody that almost floats on air.
What makes fingerstyle guitar different from strumming chords?
Playing fingerstyle guitar in the best and most efficient manner requires taking a different viewpoint of the instrument altogether. Yes, your fretting hand still has the incredibly important job of fretting the right chords – but it’s your picking hand that creates the vast majority of the magic.
Strumming chords is pretty straight forward – for the most part, all you need to do is hold a pick and work to make sure you are hitting only the right strings required and with the proper sense of rhythm. We don’t want to downplay this – it is a critical skill for any guitar player to have – but mastering fingerstyle can take a little more forethought.
“The reason I wanted to play guitar was because I saw Buddy Holly and then our own homegrown Shadows on TV in 1957 or ’58. I wanted to learn to play guitar so I could do what they did and be in a band.” Peter Frampton
The biggest challenge here is to move the fingers on your picking hand independently of each other. We won’t sugar coat it – it can be tricky at first to develop, and it will take you a fair amount of substantial practice time to get it nailed. As with most things on the guitar, the time and effort you put in will reward you in ways far beyond what you may be able to comprehend when you are just starting out. Don’t get frustrated – just take it slow and sure.
Exercises for playing fingerstyle guitar
To keep things simple at the start of learning to play fingerstyle, we’ve found that it may be best to focus a little on your fretting hand as possible. That’s so you can pay more attention to making sure that your picking hand is learning to get the job done.
Keeping that in mind, we have a few beginner’s exercises for you. They are all focused around a single open C chord, as shown below:
As a little reminder, the ‘X’ on the chord chart means that string is not to be played as part of the chord, so when you are working on these exercises, try to do your best to not let that open E string ring out.
In this first example, we will focus on using three of the fingers on your picking hand: your thumb, index, and middle fingers. Keeping the open C chord shape, play the notes as shown below:
The key here is knowing which fingers to use. It’s extremely common (and typically the most efficient) to use your thumb to play the lower notes in a fingerpicked passage, and this example is no different. Your thumb is just the right choice to play the low C notes on the 3rd fret of the 5th string.
Before we go any farther, it’s crucial to have a little discussion on the best way to use those fingers on your picking hand. While anything is possible on the guitar, the ‘normal’ convention is for your thumb to play downstrokes and other fingers to play upstrokes. This may seem like a pretty basic point to make, but you will undoubtedly see how intuitive it is once you start playing – basically, your fingers will be following their natural range of motion.
OK…so you started out using your thumb with a downstroke for that first C note, right? So what’s next?
For the open G string, use your index finger and play an upstroke. Then go back and use your thumb again for the next low C note, then finish the pattern of using an upstroke with your middle finger to play the higher C note on the first fret of the 2nd string.
This one is a little bit of a deviation from Exercise #1, but we think you’ll definitely hear the change:
Doesn’t look all that different at first glance, does it? However, this exercise introduces a key part of the fingerstyle vocabulary – alternating bass notes.
Here you will use your thumb again – not only for the low C note, but also for the E note on the 2nd fret of the 4th string. You will still use your index and middle fingers as before, but you will be playing a different string every other note with your thumb for the bass notes.
Lastly, we’ll add just a little more difficulty to the next exercise. Here you will be playing two notes on two different strings at the same time:
To pull off this exercise in the right way, use your thumb and middle finger to play the two C notes together. While those are sounding out, use your index finger on the open G (just as in the other exercises), and then use your thumb again for the lower E note. To add a little bit of color, hit that open E string with an upstroke from your middle finger.
An excellent point to remember with all of these exercises – take it slow and easy at the start. Many fingerstyle songs tend to let notes ring out, so make sure that every note you are playing isn’t muted (you ARE fretting the chord formation right, aren’t you) and that they all chime out like a bell. Get the technique’s mechanics down first, then build up your speed over time until you sound like a seasoned pro!
Another good point to explain – these exercises’ main intent isn’t to make you a fingerpicking expert. They are simply ways for you to develop the individual finger motions needed to play correctly. As you explore and increase your fingerpicking skills, you’ll inevitably come across many types of styles and patterns that will take you to the next level. Experiment with different chords or complete chord progressions. It may sound a little cliche, but it’s true – the possibilities are truly endless!
There is more – a LOT more – to playing the guitar than just strumming along. Don’t get us wrong – for some players, that’s all that they may want or need to learn how to do – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
If you’re wanting to take your playing into a different realm, learning to play with a fingerstyle technique is a skill set that is hard to beat. Not only will you be able to play chords, but you’ll also be able to create intricate and harmonically exciting passages that are sure to please any audience – and that’s even if your audience is just yourself!
New techniques on the guitar are great in that they will give back what you put into them. Taking the time and patience to learn how to play fingerstyle will increase your overall utility on the instrument. It can lead you to explore new sounds and musical territories that you may not have done otherwise.